Plumbing the Character of Flight 93’s Brave Passengers

"The Flight That Fought Back" is one of the first televised dramatizations of the hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, and initially this nonfiction film is rightfully tentative about whether such events should be re-enacted at all. But slowly the production is led in new and significant directions by those who know the most about the people who died.

United Flight 93 plummeted into a patch of dirt by a hemlock grove at 580 miles per hour, and only the investigators and the surviving family members have heard the last five minutes of the flight data recorder. Based on interviews and reports, the Discovery Channel produced some slick dramatizations, with actors as stand-ins for the fallen fighters. Soon enough, this becomes a distracting sidelight, even if it advances the narrative of how passengers stormed the cockpit and overtook the hijackers.

The program’s real rewards come through the interwoven interviews, when family members describe at length those they lost. The spouses and parents and siblings of the passengers recall not merely those final declarations of love, over phones inside the plane, but also, and more interestingly, offer telling bits of character that explain what made these strangers unite for a historic challenge, which probably prevented a hit on the United States Capitol.

In fact, the lucid, informative mourners seize control of a documentary that was veering toward the tired conventions of televised thrillers. The performances of the re-enactors are credible, if hardly distinguished, but that’s not the problem. The creepy elements are the narration by Kiefer Sutherland, the split-screen storytelling, the elapsed-time readout. These are signature innovations of Fox’s "24," a series that has long played on 21st-century fears of sudden mass destruction. Ripping them off for this production seems seriously misguided: why would the devices of a fictional white-knuckler be required to juice up a story that already has such emotional energy?

The family members thus rescue the show from contrivance, slowing the pace with visits to their living rooms. They are seated, relaxed, shown at a wide angle so the stuff of their lives can be seen on shelves and table tops. The editors have kept in their hosts’ pauses, their gestures, their paragraph-long remembrances – never intruding with the tight close-up and abbreviated clip that network newsmagazines often use for maximum emotional impact.

Derrill Bodley recalls his college-student daughter, Deora, at 20 the flight’s youngest casualty. The father and daughter had long cerebral conversations on car trips, which the dad seems to be replaying in his drooping head before he lifts it to reveal a smile. "By the time we got home, we had solved all the world’s problems – every time," he says.

Lyz Glick has been interviewed many times about her strapping husband, Jeremy, and again she vividly walks the viewer through her thought process when he reached her from the plane. She knew of the attacks on the World Trade Center and wondered, "Is that good information to give him?" She concluded it was and recalled his calm reply: "Do you think my plane’s going there?"

Jeremy Glick, like several others, comes to life with descriptions of his physical prowess. He broke opponents’ arms in judo matches, his wife recalled, and could easily do worse if necessary. Similarly, Mark Bingham is recalled by his mother, who attested that his 6-foot-4 stature and experience in gay rugby leagues made him particularly imposing.

Deena Burnett, widow of a businessman named Tom, quietly dominates the proceedings with a becalmed Southern grace, a drawl that compares with the actress Mary Steenburgen’s, a sense of storytelling that honors her subject and respects her listener. "Tom’s whole life was about strategy," she says of her husband, who was constantly calculating the costs and benefits of decisions. He had recently been reading about the Battle of Gettysburg and had mused about the soldiers who pinned notes to their wives on trees before facing certain death. "I think it’s something he asked himself often: what would be his level of courage?" she says.

The program doesn’t dwell on Flight 93’s most celebrated passenger, Todd Beamer, whose declaration "Let’s roll" became a presidential rallying cry. Thus there is more time to learn about lesser-known victims, like Lauren Grandcolas, a marketing executive who, at 38, was two months pregnant after five years of trying. Another 38-year-old, Richard Guadagno was a law-enforcement officer for a national wildlife refuge, and his parents were hardly surprised that he did not ring them up midcrisis. He would always go after rule-breakers before tending to his own needs, his elderly father attested.

Television producers usually coax more tears than we see here. After an off-kilter start, "The Flight That Fought Back" tries something different, exploring bereavement by refusing to ply these people for those most maudlin insights. As the families are allowed to tell their stories at some length, they offer dry-eyed insights, assembled into cogent, meaningful vignettes. They also share photos and home movies, juxtaposing gentleness in happy times with survival skills in a desperate one.

It’s important that the Discovery Channel sat with these families a while and let them speak their minds. Together, they have subverted some tired conventions on how to report on grief and loss, without Sturm und Drang, and honored their dead in an original and useful way.

Filed in: Media Coverage

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